Friday, May 26, 2006

A Life in Radio

For those of us who once labored over a hot mike, spent long weekends or overnights running pre-recorded programs, and gave a part of our lives to radio, Mitch Berg has a poignant tribute to one of our own, a man named Joe Hanson. Mr. Hanson, who was a long-time radio producer and engineer in the Twin Cities, passed away recently.

Reading the story of Hanson's life and career, I was struck by a sudden case of "what if." You see, I too, once chased the dream called radio. As a young man, I spent more than five years in the medium, working my way through college as a disc jockey, newscaster and football play-by-play man at small market stations in the south and Mid-West. During that interlude, I covered much of the same territory described by Mitch Berg; long nights and weekends at some podunk station in the middle of nowhere, spinning records or making sure that some syndicated program aired at the right time.

Working conditions were often grim; station politics and intrigue rivaled the Russian Politburo; young DJs and board operators were often hired and fired on the whim of a program director or general manager. At some stations, you were never more than one format deviation or miscue from the unemployment line. When you moved up to a slightly larger market, there was the ratings book to worry about. A god called Arbitron ruled your existence; good numbers meant more money, and (hopefully) a shot in a bigger market. If the audience wasn't there, neither was your job. It was that brutally simple.

If the work environment was bad, wages were usually worse. Rush Limbaugh was reportedly fired seven times in his early broadcast career, and found himself (at age 30) earning far less money than he had a decade earlier, as a morning DJ in Pittsburgh. Another broadcast icon, Sean Hannity, earned $1,000 a month as a talk show host in Huntsville, AL in the late 1980s--about the same thing I earned as a radio news director at the start of that decade. Of course, that was a step up from my first, full-time radio job, fresh out of college, with a bachelor's degree in journalism. That gig paid a princely $900 a month--in 1979.

But there was always the dream. Most of us had a mental image of our career, a path that would carry us from the small markets to New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, preferably by the age of 30. For me, a couple of years at the local tea kettle station would get me to Little Rock, Shreveport, Springfield, or Jackson, MS. From there, I'd try to land a job in Memphis, Birmingham, or Nashville, followed by a stint in St. Louis, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, or Dallas. After that, a coveted gig at WLS, WABC, or KHJ, and big-money radio stardom. Sure, it was a pipedream, but it was something to keep you going when payday at your 1,000 watt AM station was two days away, and you had $1.50 in your pocket.

My radio ambitions came to an end in 1981, during a format change at the Midwest station where I was the news director. The ratings book came out, and our audience numbers were in the toilet. A consultant directed a complete overhaul, so the entire staff was summoned to the general manager's office on a Friday afternoon and summarily dismissed. For me, that event triggered a crisis of confidence that led me to an Air Force recruiter's office, a different career and a new life. I still dabbled in radio from time-to-time during my military career, but it was now a hobby and no longer an obsession.

In hindsight, getting out of radio was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. As Mitch Berg describes in his post, the business has become even tougher over the past 20 years. Satellite-delivered syndicated programs and music formats now fill many stations' broadcast schedules. There is no longer a requirement for a "live" human being to be in the station while it's on the air. Computers control everything, from monitoring the transmitter, to airing local commercials and promos. There are fewer entry-level and "second" jobs in the business, in markets where aspiring broadcasters could learn their craft and even make mistakes. Now, the "talent" is a nameless voice from New York, Los Angeles or even Omaha, announcing the same song at the same time on scores of stations around the country. The "local" broadcaster is there is host the morning show (if he or she is lucky), sell and record commercials, and (of course) reboot the computer when the satellite feeds go down.

That's the medium that Joe Hanson devoted his life to. I never met Mr. Hanson, but I've known dozens of men just like him, individuals who pursued a dream in a tough, unforgiving business. A few still reach the very top, but for the rest, there is often frustration and disappointment. They deserve better, but they also know the business, the economics that drive it, and understand that radio isn't going to change; if anything, current trends will only accelerate, meaning even fewer jobs and depressed wages for those working in small and medium-sized markets.

And yet they soldier on, because, despite the low pay, crummy hours and non-existent benefits, they love the business, and still find some magic in Mr. Marconi's invention. Somehow, that's enough to keep them going, if only for a while.

R.I.P. Mr. Hanson.

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